Conflict and Collaboration in Middle-Aged and Older Couples: II. Cardiovascular Reactivity During Marital Interaction

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Marital strain confers risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD), perhaps though cardiovascular reactivity (CVR) to stressful marital interactions. CVR to marital stressors may differ between middle-age and older adults, and types of marital interactions that evoke CVR may also differ across these age groups, as relationship contexts and stressors differ with age. The authors examined cardiovascular responses to a marital conflict discussion and collaborative problem solving in 300 middle-aged and older married couples. Marital conflict evoked greater increases in blood pressure, cardiac output, and cardiac sympathetic activation than did collaboration. Older couples displayed smaller heart rate responses to conflict than did middle-aged couples but larger blood pressure responses to collaboration—especially in older men. These effects were maintained during a posttask recovery period. Women did not display greater CVR than men on any measure or in either interaction context, though they did display greater parasympathetic withdrawal. CVR to marital conflict could contribute to the association of marital strain with CVD for middle-aged and older men and women, but other age-related marital contexts (e.g., collaboration among older couples) may also contribute to this mechanism.

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